CN Academics Corner

Celebrating Negativity Part 1 – The Invisible Power of “Againstness”

HeartBalloon_shutterstock_97614038 Color [2]What is the language of Diversity?

Language is defined in increasingly complex ways. Consistent throughout the more global definitions of language are references to methods, systems, structures and agreements on ways of communicating thoughts or meanings. Language can be accomplished through spoken, written or physical conventions. Human languages divide into systems of communication used by particular communities or countries.

Language can be exemplified in as concrete a form as “computer code” on the hard end of the spectrum, and on the other end as soft and conceptual as a “language of love.” Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge once framed language as an implement of conflict. He wrote, “Language is the armory of the human mind, and at once contains the trophies of its past and the weapons of its future conquests.”

Like any community, “Diversity” as a field of endeavor has a jargon that sprang to life about forty years ago and has matured in interesting ways.  The linguistic tradition of Diversiphiles® (the primary adherents of Diversity’s philosophy of multifariousness) has experienced no shortage of developmental challenges. Its adherents seem to have no  universal conventions, no shared model of what “Diversity” means as it is applied either inside or outside of the field.

The problem may boil down to one of having paid insufficient attention to its own language as a system of communication that varies greatly from that of its intended audiences, and their mental models of togetherness.

Diversity’s linguistics are wound around its solid core, a long and growing taxonomy of differences that amounts to a system of cultural classifications. The community of Diversiphiles® employs those terms in recognition of the ways they have traditionally divided people and set them on edge against each other. Diversity at its core harps on the ways people culturally diverge from one another, or even conflict with one another.

To coat that rock solid center of ongoing intercultural conflict and tensions between the differences, various methods purport to “manage differences,” though not usually resolving differences.  The Diversity theory seems to be that managing differences is first a matter of employing soothing terms of positive engagement, including appreciate, valueembracedignify, respect and others to cushion the impact of otherwise unresolved differences in the workplace and elsewhere. Though Coleridge might readily see D&I terminologies as the language of managing conflict (or struggle) in its earliest phases, its users seem increasingly unaware of that aspect.

There are some clues that the phenomenology of Diversiphiles® might have remained so focused on the mantra “celebrating differences” that the very definition of differences is  being or has been overwritten by the definition of celebration within the field. “Differences” may have taken on a skewed meaning as a term of art inside the D&I field. In some ways, “differences” is used to paint a mental image of celebration, almost merging with celebration as inseparable in use.  Those outside the field are still having a hard time dealing with the dichotomy.

When was the first time you realized you were different?” asked one consultant in a discussion.  An innocent enough question, so you’d think, posted in a popular ‘Diversity’ forum by a southeastern U.S. consultant.  It was a loaded question.  The results quickly demonstrated the underlying power in the language of differences.

The hoped for positive discussion quickly drew out what the consultant himself ultimately characterized as negative responses. The respondents gravitated to the focus and attitudes that so often accompany differences in matters of race, class, religion, gender and more.  Any good intentions quickly gave way to that fundamental hard core of the Diversity paradigm.  The invisible power of language coursed through the brief discussion as its participants’ points of view quickly emerged and then diverged.  The pain of differences and pain of the recalled treatment over differences almost burst from each new frame of the discussion.  The pattern repeats itself often in professional Diversity discussions, seemingly impossible for such to be avoided or averted.

The consultant puzzled, “I am stilled challenged by anyone’s understanding that the word “difference” is defined as being negative. The colors of the rainbow are different. Does that make them negative?”  He hadn’t considered that the spectrum of visible colors aren’t limited to those in the rainbow, they can be both additive and subtractive, and can complement, contrast and clash. The power in the original language meanings around the word differences as “againstness” remained seemingly invisible to the questioner, yet it wasn’t hidden and proved difficult to ignore in the conversation that grew out of his question.

Language and thinking are powerfully interwoven, each affecting the other in ways that may escape us due to the deceptive ease with which we seem to use language. But the extent to which language impacts on the operation of the brain itself and how the brain sees “differences” is worth considering. “We can see your thoughts create your brain.” says Ray Kurzweil, “That’s key to the secrets of its operation, that we actually create the connections that constitute the hierarchy of the neocortex from our own thoughts.”

Recognizing the question’s almost irresistible draw toward those differences most highly promoted in the language and practice of “Diversity,” how could you re-frame the well intended question, but in a CultureNeutral way…a way that would attract the kinds of answers the consultant may have hoped for, but couldn’t seem to get?

The discussion of “againstness” will continue in Part 2 of “Celebrating Negativity.”


Copyright © Robert D. Jones 2013, All Rights Reserved

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